The Girl Who Was Once Nira Sharma
The 2G scam tapes are a superb lesson in dialectology, loosely the study of speech styles. PR lady Niira Radia’s accent varies in practically each conversation with politicians, business leaders, bureaucrats and top TV and print editors. She’s matter-of-fact in some, husky in others; she’s abusive in Hindi while speaking about some journalists to her staffers, she’s assured while explaining extremely technical matters to business honchos, retired bureaucrats and editors; and has a schoolgirl-like British accent while conversing with Ratan Tata: “I hope the bad times are behind us,” she tells the Tata Group chief at the end of a conversation.
Well, the bad times do not seem to be ending for Niira Radia. As the Enforcement Directorate launches an investigation into the 5,800 reported taped conversations from Radia’s phone over a six-month period in 2009, all transactions with tax implications will be looked into. Home secretary G.K. Pillai tells Outlook that it was his predecessor Madhukar Gupta who had sanctioned the phone-tapping on the request of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, which was investigating suspicious fund transfers. These will be investigated now.
Since Outlook published extracts from the CD of Radia’s phone conversations (submitted to the court) taped by the I-T department—and put the 140 conversations up on its website—there has been a raging debate. On what they tell us about the role of lobbyists in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, how the media interplays in such a system, and how our political class and retired bureaucrats are more often than not willing partners in the game. These debates do not detract from the aim of punishing the guilty behind the 2G scam; rather they raise disturbing questions we all have to answer. Who is this woman who can speak to the “highest and mightiest” in this country in this way? From where does she draw her power? And what does it tell us about our society? When Outlook asked her whether she would like to give her version of these recent events, Radia SMSed back: “No. Thank You.” This is her story.
Quite like all those different accents, Niira’s background remains a guarded mystery and the answers vary depending on who you ask for nuggets of information about her past. It has actually been carefully crafted that way. For all practical purposes, her life begins in the “early 1990s” when she says she made India her base. Considering that she is about 50 years old now, that means the first 30-odd years of her life are a blank—and it doesn’t help that she has added an extra “i” to her first name (and even “looks different”, according to a senior aviation ministry official who has interacted with her in the past).
Soon after, Niira married London-based financier Janak Radia, a Gujarati. It was after a divorce that Niira decided to move to India, along with her three children, all sons. One of them, Karan, made it to the news in 2003 when the then 18-year-old was kidnapped by Niira’s “business partner” Dheeraj Singh, grandson of the late former Haryana CM, Rao Birender Singh. Dheeraj Singh, it was claimed in the fir, was a partner in Niira’s PR agency. This was one clear example of Niira’s rising clout: despite all his political connections, it is learnt that Dheeraj Singh did end up spending some time in jail.
Not much is known about Niira’s siblings—two sisters and a brother—though one of them, Karuna Menon, is involved with Niira’s work in India. Karuna was, in 2001, co-promoter of Crown Express, Niira’s first attempt to launch an airline which ended in failure. Karuna and two other people—Iqbal and Saira Menon—are also listed under the same UK address as directors of dissolved companies. More recently, Karuna has been identified as the president of Sudesh Foundation, whose trustee is “Nira Radia”. Funded by Vaishnavi Communications, Sudesh Foundation’s offices are located in Delhi’s South Extension as well as Barakhamba Road (1st Floor, Gopaldas Tower, which also houses the Tata Teleservices offices. On the fifth floor are Reliance’s offices). The trust is mainly charitable and has aligned with a ‘Sri Rama Vitthala Trust’ to start an Ayurvedic College in Karnataka. They accept donations. They are also involved with childcare, animal care, youth and disaster relief work. And going by news reports, Karuna is currently in Delhi, lending help to her sister.
By the mid-1990s, Niira—and her massive Chhattarpur farmhouse—had started making a mark in Delhi’s rarefied and big-money aviation circles. Her interest in the aviation business came in useful here; she gravitated towards consulting for domestic and international airlines (Sahara, Singapore Airlines), manufacturers (Airbus) and aircraft leasing companies (like ILFC, AAR) at a time when India had just launched its Open Skies policy. She quickly gained respect in a big boys’ club; “she was extremely polished,” says a senior aviation man who interacted with Niira closely those days. The buzz around her had already begun spreading: be it her dress sense, the “farmhouse parties that started off with pujas” or her ability to press the right buttons.
Holy Wow: A Lankesh Patrike picture shows ex-PM Vajpayee calling on Pejawar Swami (seated) in 2003, with Radia in tow. (Courtesy: Gauri Lankesh)
Later, when Ananth Kumar was moved to urban development and tourism, the catering for Niira’s parties was reportedly done by the state-owned Ashok Hotel and ITDC. But for all her proximity to Ananth Kumar, Niira could not launch her own airline, Crown Express, in 2001. An industry insider says the airline was “without doubt” a backdoor entry for Singapore Airlines. Radia’s lack of apparent funding didn’t help matters. “She couldn’t put all the pieces together,” adds this aviation insider. Niira was to try again—in 2004, she floated Magic Air. But here again, in Praful Patel’s regime, she faltered. This time round, Niira’s PIO status worked against her.
That brings us to the enemy. When Ratan Tata made his famous Rs 15-crore bribery speech recently in Dehradun, one aspect got underplayed. Ratan was referring to the Tata Group’s three attempts to launch an airline with Singapore Airlines (where Radia was a consultant). “But an individual thwarted our efforts to form the airlines,” Tata said. And the person Tata refers to is Jet Airways’ Naresh Goyal, who lobbied heaven and earth to ensure that the Tata-Singapore consortium didn’t get its way. This was a powerful enemy for Niira, and was probably one reason why she didn’t get her way with her private airline.
After successfully managing the mess around Tata Finance in 2001—when the group took its former managing director Dilip Pendse to the cleaners on corruption charges—Radia made her mark. At a time when the BJP regime seemed unstoppable, she established links with politicians, bureaucrats and top print and TV editors. At this stage, the Tata Group had a furious battle with the Times of India Group, where it withdrew advertising (the Times group in return ignored the Tata group on its pages). While this battle was eventually resolved in 2004, Radia sent out a strong signal to the media that the Tata Group could not be taken for granted. Meanwhile, around 2002, Ananth Kumar got embroiled in the HUDCO scam—the case is pending in the Supreme Court. Given the subtext of her proximity to Kumar (which didn’t last for long after that), Niira had also made strong enemies in political circles. The BJP’s Arun Jaitley, for one, has been steering clear of Radia for some time now.
Lost Kingdom: Post-resignation, his former officials are ‘singing’. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
After the BJP went out of power in 2004, Radia needed to make new political friends. And as the 2G scam tapes reveal, she seems to have done a pretty good job of it. Her closeness to the DMK’s A. Raja—the man at the heart of the largest scam ever in India—is believed to have begun in 2006, when Raja was the environment minister. Since Tata Teleservices was a key client for Radia, this relationship paid off when Raja became the telecom minister in 2007. Now that Raja has resigned, many are speaking out about his role in the ministry. As a top serving bureaucrat observes, on the first day that A. Raja took charge as telecom minister, he received a sizeable “first instalment”. Taken by surprise, Raja is reported to have dashed off to Chennai the same evening to present it to the DMK bosses, who were left wondering why Raja’s predecessor had not similarly relayed earlier instalments, if any.
Common Foe? Tata told Mukesh Ambani to hire Radia for PR. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
Ratan Tata had, in a hand-written letter to Tamil Nadu CM M. Karunanidhi in December 2007, reportedly praised Raja’s “rational, fair and action-oriented” leadership. As a no-holds-barred corporate battle lies at the heart of the scramble for scarce spectrum, the Tata Group’s proximity to the telecom minister put it head to head against Airtel’s Sunil Mittal, who was unhappy with Raja in the seat. The stakes became bigger when Radia brokered Mukesh Ambani’s open support for Tata in the Singur controversy. By getting the PR mandate for Mukesh Ambani’s business empire in 2008, she would have found herself in the hit-list of Anil Ambani, who is also Tata’s competitor in telecom. It is believed that Ratan Tata told Mukesh Ambani to take on Radia as a client (it is reported that these two of India’s largest corporate groups pay Rs 30 crore per annum each for Radia’s services). Given that the Ambani brothers’ fight was still raging, it was a natural alignment—both the Tatas and Mukesh had a common enemy.
As the spotlight intensifies on Niira Radia, senior retired bureaucrats working for her are facing some uncomfortable questions. A senior former bureaucrat recalls that former trai head Pradip Baijal and ex-economic affairs secretary C.M. Vasudev told him they were joining the “lady who handles the advertisements for Tatas...Baijal seemed to know Radia better. They mentioned that the offer was very good as no investments would be required—yet after two years they would be partners in the company by virtue of sweat equity”. Ajay Dua, former secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, who took premature retirement to join Niira Radia’s team, is denying having done any lobbying “whether in my advisory or director’s capacity nor am I inclined to do it”. Dua, however, points out that “in India, lobbying has not been declared illegal”. Similarly, C.M. Vasudev has said that he is no longer associated with Radia as “I did not opt for sweat equity”. He does, however, admit the tapes do “create (a) reputation issue”.
As Niira Radia fights the accusations against her, it’s her reputation that has taken a battering. “This tapes matter will not lead anywhere,” says a veteran lobbyist, “there are too many powerful people involved”. Tapes don’t stand up well in courts of law. But Niira Radia faces a bigger test, of reclaiming her “effectiveness”. “She’s going to be in trouble for a long, long time,” says a former airline CEO. The spotlight is now on her clients, many of whom prefer to do business quietly. It’s going to be a long, hard battle for Niira Radia.
By Sunit Arora with reporting by Lola Nayar, Arindam Mukherjee, Prarthana Gahilote, Pragya Singh in Delhi and Smruti Koppikar and Arti Sharma in Mumbai
The print version referred to "104 conversations" by mistake whereas 140 conversations were put on the website.
With reference to your story Niira, Of Two Eyes (Dec 6), we would like to clarify that while there was an attempt made to “give her version of these recent events”, our polite refusal was not a licence to publish unverified, baseless innuendos. The publication of the transcripts of some purported conversations is without verification and authentication. Outlook, like a responsible media, ought to have confirmed the authenticity and the motivation of the sources who have leaked these conversations on a selective basis.
We are presently finalising our response on your aforesaid story, including legal remedies, to indicate that the story has been developed with a preconceived notion—to discredit Ms Radia. Hence, the limited response.
For example, Niira has been mentioned as sporting the name Nira Sharma which she never had! For the record, Sharma was the maiden surname of Niira’s late mother Sudesh. The Foundation mentioned in the story—Sudesh Foundation—is in memory of her mother. This for obvious reasons does not find a mention as it may not have fit into the scheme and colour of the story so projected by the vested parties!
The story is the result of a vilification campaign at the behest of vested interests. Quite clearly, the malicious and misleading rumour-mongering seeking to find credibility through media reports is clearly a diversionary tactic to ensure that the real issues are not probed and investigated by the authorities.
There are many Niira Radias around (Niira, Of Two Eyes, Dec 6). Retired bureaucrats, relatives of judges, sons-in-law of politicians—all are in the power-patronage game, promising to get work done, at a hefty price. This one got caught. But many others—agents who get licences, move files in government offices, get affidavits made, loans sanctioned—they will thrive on, outside the media glare.
Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
Niira Radia = Politics + Corporate + Media. Man you got to agree that she has stuff!
N.Y. Root, Hyderabad
You must admire the woman. I say Niira Radia for foreign minister. Let her practise her wiles on diplomats of all countries.
Cdr Arun Visvanathan, Chennai
What a cracker of a story and a cracker of a lady!
R. Roy, Birmingham, UK
The 2G scam is nothing but exaggeration and fabrication by the media. Many big names are coming out, but the situation is being used by some unseen corporate hands for their own benefit. It is noteworthy that only a lady is being targeted in the last few weeks. Unless something is proved, how can you publicly discuss a person’s background? Niira Radia has been a social worker and has selflessly devoted her personal time towards the upliftment and benefit of the underprivileged. She has done a lot of social work together with Shri Pejawara Swamiji in Karnataka. Whatever has been published in the article is nothing but a bunch of completely motivated lies at the behest of her competitors and vested interests. The writers appear to be pseudo-secular heroes of the media which seems to be on a rampage against her. It only shows how journalists are on the books of corporates.
Dr K. Giridhar, Bangalore
I don’t understand what interest reporters and editors have in publishing the personal story of a person (Niira Radia) along with a photo of Shri Pejawara Swamiji. Even the tapes—related to a personal conversation between Tata and Niira—have little about the scam. As for Niira’s friendships with high-profile personalities, all it shows is that she is a powerful and very successful lobbyist.
G.K. Satyamurthy, Bangalore
The larger fallout of her lobbying notwithstanding, Niira Radia comes across as an extremely competent PR professional. What is of concern is that with politicians, bureaucrats and even journalists lobbying for corporates, the ordinary Indian is left with hardly anyone to speak for him.
P. Prasand Thampy, Thiruvalla, Kerala
Will Niira use her skills in manipulating the government and politicians to worm her way out of this imbroglio? Will the corporates who supported her come out in the open and denounce her means to justify their ends? Will the Congress, bjp and other parties realise that Nitish Kumar and the much-hated Narendra Modi run governments that deliver to people? Will the “icons” of journalism stay out of journalism till they go through some internal cleansing? Will the very public nature of the Radia tapes be questioned by the advocates of privacy?
V. Krishnan, Pune
Lobbying comes in handy when clear-cut procedures do not work in fixing a deal. The unsettling part about the whole affair is not lobbying as such but the extent to which it can influence decision-makers and policy. Radia seems to have played to the gallery in fulfilling her business ambitions.
Sunil Kumar, Delhi
Whichever astrologer advised Niira Radia on a second “eye” failed to anticipate this disaster, I guess.
Santosh Gairola, Hsinchu, Taiwan
I can’t help but admire the woman.
Vaz, Sterling, US
With reference to the taped conversation between Noel Tata and Niira Radia, I want to make it clear that Niira didn’t dictate any questions to Business Today. BT’s interview with Noel Tata (for a cover story that appeared in October 2009) took place over two sessions and was facilitated by Ms Radia’s PR firm. Ms Radia’s firm wanted BT to restrict the interview only to Noel Tata’s management of Trent, the retail chain. We, however, decided to expand the scope of the interview to Noel Tata’s likelihood of succeeding Ratan Tata. Our cover story thus was focused on Noel Tata’s probability of heading the Tata Group and not on the management of Trent only. When the BT story came out, Ms Radia was “upset” and had a slanging e-mail exchange with us.
when an opportunity was given to Nira radia to speak her own,she bluntly reffused.Now how can she repudiate the action of outlook in publishing the tapes.Aftersll outlook would never hsve missed an opportunity to be neutral in publishing the tapes.So by hitting back to Outlook she has further decreased her image ,on her own
What is not surprising is that there the public is discovering Nira Radias of the world , but what is surprising is that top business leaders and people whom the public looked up to getting involved in the whole issue
Anybody who wants to sympathise with 'innocent' A Raja can cheer him up by writing to him. His address:
2G Spectrum Marg
Nira Radia Nagar
New Delhi 110 420
Swamijis are big curept guys in our nation. They do anything in name of god.. People belives them blindly in sake of god... People should think first before beliving them. They wont adderes any common mens problems. They are here to do business.
Who will gaurd the evidence in the Niira Tapes matter ??? MMS is a accused , CVC/CBI web site stands hacked by Pakistan , Indian Army has attacked CBI at Command Army hospital in Pune, Army officers are accused of forging letters as Defence Estate in Mumbai ,Tomas is accused ???? Allahabad high court has filed contempt against the Supreme court comment "something rotton...", BJP as opposition has vested interests ...
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